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Video Calls From the Couch

Making a phone call pales to these high-tech communication alternatives.

Use your child's video game console to video chat
Finally, if you have a Sony PlayStation 3 or Microsoft Xbox 360 video game console, add-on cameras will bring video chat to these systems. The PlayStation solution, which relies on the $39.99 PlayStation Eye camera, has one particularly slick feature — you can connect up to six people at a time in a Brady Bunch-style on-screen grid for a group chat. Unfortunately, the PS3 can only link up with other PS3s, a major limitation when computer webcams are so prevalent.

Xbox 360 has an inexpensive basic webcam, too, but Microsoft recently introduced a much more capable (and pricey) alternative, called Kinect ($150, or $300 bundled with an Xbox 360). The primary function of Kinect is to bring the kind of motion-controlled gaming made popular on the Nintendo Wii to the Xbox 360. Unlike the Nintendo, or the new Sony Move controller, you don't hold anything in your hands to play games with Kinect. It has both a camera and an infrared sensor built in, following your movements to control in-game action. And in addition to watching you leap, lunge and wiggle, the camera also supports video chat (which can be done while sitting, thank goodness). The resolution isn't high-def, but it does handle rooms with low lighting well, and brings a few ingenious twists to the video chat task — most notably auto-zoom to frame the shot automatically, and software that follows you as you move during a chat session, like a robotic cameraman. Kinect owners can chat with computer users running free Live Messenger software (yes, there's a version for Mac users, too). While there's no monthly fee, you do need an Xbox Live Gold membership, at $60 a year. It's worth noting that, unlike all of the non-game-console solutions mentioned here, you don't need a high-definition TV to make video calls with Kinect.

A word on lighting

All of these video chat systems are designed to deal reasonably well with the relatively low light levels in the typical den or living room, but managing room illumination will definitely give you a better result. Job one is avoiding bright lights in the background — sunlight streaming through a window from behind will leave you looking like a black blob no matter how good the video camera. Having a lamp or window light illuminating you from the front will also improve your image. As for hair, lights, makeup and wardrobe for your video efforts, we'll leave that to your own good judgment.

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